There can be little doubt that trees are a valued asset in Forest Hills — a leafy suburb seven miles east of Downtown — where a grand entrance arch over Route 30, also known as Ardmore Boulevard, welcomes motorists to a “Tree City USA.”
Trees planted in the median strip where the Ardmore streetcar traveled from 1940 to 1967 have blossomed into a lush linear forest the length of the busy four-lane highway through the borough.
More than 1,700 trees line the streets of Forest Hills and many more flourish in the public parks that take up nearly a quarter of the borough’s 1.5 square miles.
“Trees are a big deal here,” said Ted Gilbert, borough arborist. “Trees really should be a big deal everywhere.
Mr. Gilbert has been planting and caring for trees since 1954, when he graduated from Penn State University with a degree in forestry.
“People tell me I am the biggest tree hugger in the world,” he said.
Many urban and suburban communities spend time, money and effort on trees, but only five municipalities in Allegheny County carry the Tree City USA designation, two in outlying counties, and 102 in all of Pennsylvania.
Forest Hills has been a Tree City USA for 28 years, followed by Crafton for 25 years, Beaver for 17 years, Oil City in Venango County for 17 years, Pittsburgh for nine years, Mt. Lebanon for eight years and Carnegie for the first time this year.
The designation comes from the Arbor Day Foundation, which started the Tree City USA program in 1976 with 42 communities across the nation. Partners in the program are the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.
Now more than 3,400 communities across the country, with a combined population of over 138 million, have the title. The honor goes to communities of all sizes — from Beaver with fewer than 5,000 residents to Philadelphia, with 1.5 million residents, which has been a Tree City USA for 38 years.
Residents of towns that earn the designation, which requires a large level of volunteer participation, are passionately proud. Arbor Day officials say the benefits extend beyond bragging rights.
"Everyone benefits when officials, volunteers and residents make smart investments in community forests,“ said John Rosenow, founder and chief executive of The Arbor Day Foundation. ”Trees bring shade to our homes and beauty to our neighborhood, along with numerous economic, social and environmental benefits. Cleaner air, improved stormwater management, energy savings and increased property values and commercial activity are among the benefits enjoyed by Tree City USA communities.“
There are four requirements to become a Tree City USA:
■ Have a tree ordinance on the books.
■ Spend at least $2 per capita on urban forestry.
■ Sponsor an Arbor Day celebration each spring.
■ Maintain a tree board or department.
In addition, the foundation is looking for community commitment to plant trees, maintain existing trees and remove dead trees.
Applications are made online at arborday.org. Once approved, the status must be renewed each year.
In 2011, Marlene Smith Pendleton said she became angry “about trees not pruned properly.” A resident of Carnegie who owns and operates MS Designs Ltd. in her hometown said the beauty of many trees in the borough had been marred by severe cuts that were more extensive than necessary. She pushed to make sure that would not happen again.
The Carnegie Shade Tree Commission was formed that year with six volunteers and a council member who reports back to council.
In 2012, Ms. Pendleton, who is vice president of Carnegie’s commission, discovered that help was available from TreeVitalize Pittsburgh, a private-public partnership started in 2008 that involves Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, Tree Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
“We’ve planted 22,000 trees so far,” Marah Vecenie, community outreach assistant for TreeVitalize, said. Most of the trees have been planted in Pittsburgh, with about 5,000 planted in 30 Allegheny County communities, including Carnegie and Crafton.
“We’re all certified tree tenders,” Karyn Rok of Carnegie, an attorney who serves on the Carnegie Shade Tree Commission, said of the commission members. Each member paid $40 for a daylong TreeVitalize course that puts the group in line to get trees and technical advice and assistance. “They tell you which trees will thrive” in your town, Ms. Rok added.
At a planting in April in Carnegie, 140 volunteers turned out to plant 102 trees, Ms. Vecenie said.
“We had to turn volunteers away,” Ms. Rok said.
Volunteers donated an estimated $10,000 worth of service, supplies and refreshments, Ms. Pendleton said.
Young trees planted on Mansfield Avenue in Carnegie include American sweetgum, which has star-shaped leaves; London plane, related to a sycamore but with thick leaves that resemble a maple; and the venerable gingko, with its distinctive fan-shaped leaves.
Not content to stop there, Carnegie went after and garnered the Tree City USA designation.
Bridget Van Dorn, a member of the tree commission, did a tree inventory in the borough and found almost 17 percent were Norway maple. Others include pear, pin oak, honey locust, Norway spruce, red mulberry, black walnut, American elm and blue spruce.
When Jamie Beechey was hired a year ago as Crafton’s director of borough services, she quickly learned that residents are passionate about Crafton’s Tree City USA status. She was familiar with the concept, for she hails from Titusville in Crawford County, which has been a Tree City USA for 27 years.
It’s special to be in such an urban area with so many trees, Ms. Beechey said.
Our tree folks are very committed, and the borough supports that and pays for it to the tune of about $10,000 a year, she said.
The landscaped circle in front of the borough building includes a granite boulder inscribed with the name of Tony Kueshner, who was known as “Mr. Trees.” An architect by profession, he spent more than three decades volunteering for parks and trees committees. His efforts helped create three miniparks, 18 flower beds and hundreds of new tree plantings, including 150 pear trees on Steuben Street.
Mr. Kueshner died in 2003 at age 72, but community interest in the Crafton Park and Shade Tree Commission remains strong.
Extra effort went into planning this year’s celebration of the borough’s 25th year as a Tree City USA. More than 100 volunteers were at the celebration this month.
In an established community such as Mt. Lebanon, many large, older trees stand in yards and along streets, where they rise tall and create picturesque canopies.
“The whole tree thing is considered a historic part of Mt. Lebanon,” said Susan Fleming Morgans, the town’s public information officer. “People really care about the trees,” she said, adding that most believe the trees add to home value.
Mt. Lebanon has a long-running commitment to trees that predates the eight years the town has been a Tree City USA. The public works department has long included employees trained in tree care, and the 2014 tree budget is $397,910 in a community that has about 33,000 residents.
The municipality will get calls if officials take down a tree, and trees are removed only if they are dead or diseased, Ms. Morgans said.
Students in the public schools have become major participants in the Arbor Day celebration held each April, which is required of each Tree City USA. Leading up to Arbor Day, elementary school students study trees. Students and teachers celebrate with songs, poems, essays and art in an observance that has become increasingly elaborate each year.
Students also help with planting on Arbor Day.
“We can’t get them to stop digging,” Ms. Morgans said.
On a recent trip to a Lowe’s Home Improvement store, Beaver attorney J. Philip Colavincenzo wasn’t looking for trees, but he could not pass up the 12-foot-tall oak trees on sale for 50 percent off their $39.95 price tags. He bought two and put them in his car, with plans to plant them in a borough park.
It’s all in a day’s work for a volunteer. Mr. Colavincenzo has been a member of the Beaver Tree Commission since the mid-1990s.
"I’ve just always liked trees,” he explained.
The Beaver Tree Commission works because of the support of elected officials and the enthusiasm of volunteers.The borough has a poster program in support of trees in which fourth- and fifth-grade students are involved in the borough’s annual Arbor Day Celebration.
Beaver’s “main drag” is Third Street, which has a unique characteristic. In 2002, Duquesne Light Co. agreed to put utility wires behind the buildings, giving tree lovers an unimpeded sight line of trees that will never have to be pruned to make way for power lines.
The 15 to 20 trees that were planted are now about 20 feet tall, he said. “We did our research” about what would thrive, he said, and agreed upon gingko, little leaf linden and ash trees.
Two of the ash trees succumbed to the emerald ash borer — beetles that have killed as many as 55 million ash trees in the U.S. Infested trees have to be removed to avoid the spread of the deadly insects.
Most people like trees, but “people who dislike trees can make a lot of noise,” said Mr. Gilbert, the Forest Hills arborist.
Complaints come from those who don’t like the autumn leaf collection schedule and people who don’t want to rake leaves at all, he said. Some taxpayers complain about the cost of paying the people who care for trees, and in older towns, some residents complain about the roots of big trees that push up and crack sidewalks.
The biggest potential downside to trees is they can be downed by wind or lightning, causing injury and/or property damage. When falling trees hit power lines, many people can lose electricity. In especially severe storms, thousands have been without power for days.
Trees are routinely pruned to prevent them from interfering with utility lines.Utility companies will do the pruning if municipalities do not have the staff or the money to do it.
Tree lovers should enjoy oaks and other trees that can grow to 70 feet or more while they’re still with us.
Mr. Gilbert and Ms. Morgans noted that when huge street trees have to be taken down due to disease or damage, they are being replaced with trees that are not likely to grow more than about 20 feet high.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-722-0087.